Why Apple Needs to Fix Its Podcast Problem




Apple treats podcasting like an unwanted stepchild. 

I think this is a huge missed opportunity for Apple — and for audio and video content creators.

Here’s what Apple is doing wrong, and how they could do it right. 

Apple is famous for re-thinking content consumption from the ground up, for rejecting knee-jerk assumptions about how things are supposed to work.

Apple has a powerful instinct in its DNA for blank-slate thinking.

One example comes from the Walter Isaacson biography, Steve Jobs. In that book, Jobs’ wife Laurene recalls why it took the Jobs family eight years to choose a sofa. She said: “We spent a lot of time asking ourselves, ‘What is the purpose of a sofa?'”

Jobs’ idea was not to just go buy a sofa because you’re supposed to buy a sofa, but to determine what problem a sofa is supposed to solve, then solving that problem in the best way possible (even if that solution doesn’t involve a sofa).

Another comes from a recent interview Apple Senior Vice President of Industrial Design Jony Ive gave to the UK children’s TV show Blue Peter. In the interview, the presenter asked Ive to judge children’s lunch box design contest entries.

Before he looked at the drawings, Ive said: “If we were thinking of lunch box we’d be careful about not having the word ‘box’ already give you a bunch of ideas that could be quite narrow, because you think of a box as being square, a cube, and so we’re quite careful with the words we use because those can sort of determine the path you go down.

This instinct is to avoid conditioned thinking before design, so that the designed object satisfies the requirements and solves the problems you desire to solve regardless of any preconceived ideas about how things are supposed look or work.

For some reason, it seems to me, Apple appears to have failed to think this way about podcasting.

Apple used to include podcasting on iOS as an also-ran feature in the Music app. Last year, they launched a dedicated Podcasts app.

The app has been universally panned. Mashable called it “horrible.” Business Insider called it “horrifically bad.” C|net called it the “worst app Apple ever made.”  

A rough consensus has emerged in some quarters that Apple neglects the podcasting and the Podcasts app because there’s nothing in it for Apple. Podcasts are free, so Apple gets no cut. There’s no money in podcasting, so who cares?

I have no idea why Apple decided to separate podcasts from music or what series of blunders led to the release of an embarrassing Podcasts app.

But I do believe that Apple is missing an enormous opportunity by neglecting podcasting.

The Apple Way to Think About Podcasting

If Apple applied its famous blank-slate thinking to podcasting, I’m sure they would think different about it.

There are three basic Applesque questions to be asked and answered about podcasting:

1. What is a podcast, really? 

The answer to the first question is simple. A podcast is simply serialized audio or video content that can be streamed over the Internet, downloaded and subscribed to.

Other types of audio and video content, such as radio and TV shows, used to be broadcast live. But now and in the future, content creators want to stream them live over the Internet, and make them available for downloading and subscription.

In other words, radio and TV shows want to become podcasts.

Yet nobody ever says this. The radio industry and Hollywood want to podcast without calling it podcasting so they can maintain the lie that what they’re doing is fundamentally different from what podcasters are doing.

So let’s be clear: The whole future of all media is podcasting — streaming, downloadable and subscribable — but the legacy producers want to exclude grass-roots competition by never, ever calling themselves podcasters.

2. What’s wrong with podcasting, currently? 

The biggest problems for podcasters are 1) finding audience; and 2) monetizing the content.

The truth is that podcasts are often shunned and ignored in part because of the artificial distinction described in Question 1 between different types of content.

It’s easy for people to gravitate to YouTube or harvest content on social streams. But it takes some effort for users to find a good podcast they like and subscribe to it — especially if they’re using Apple’s lousy Podcasts app.

The “market,” if you will, for podcasting is artificially suppressed in part by Apple’s neglect.

And when good podcasters do find big audiences, they can struggle to get paid.

Some, like Leo Laporte’s TWiT network of “netcasts,” are very successfully monetized through advertising. (Full disclosure: I appear on three TWiT netcasts from time to time.)

Others, such as Adam Curry’s and John C. Dvorak’s No Agenda podcast are successfully monetized through listener donations.

Still others, such as Cult of Mac’s own Cultcast, both monetize through advertising and also provide additional content and context to readers of another medium (such as the Cult of Mac blog).

But for every successful TWiT, No Agenda or CultCast, there are thousands of podcasts with zero prospects of making significant revenue.

And this shouldn’t be the case. Vastly inferior programming on the radio and on TV makes far more money, simply because there’s a monetization model in place that everybody is used to. Without monetization, there’s little investment. And without investment, there are no budgets for production or marketing.

Another problem with podcasting is that there’s no single, unified place to do everything.

Podcasts that broadcast live, then make their audio and video podcasts available later tend to be scattered all over the Internet, combining custom-built web sites with RSS feeds with multiple places for the live stream plus multiple more for the downloadable file.

3. What are the opportunities for Apple and the world in podcasting? 

Apple should have an advantage in the future of audio and video content. After all, it was the iPod that mainstreamed digital media entertainment. The word “podcast” was even named after that product.

Rather than joining Hollywood in the debasement and neglect of podcasting, Apple should be holding it up as the future of all serial media.

Yet Apple is losing (by forfeiture) the battle for new kinds of online content. The big winner is YouTube, where all kinds of innovative programming are going online. People want to listen to “radio” in the car and elsewhere — satellite and terrestrial — and yet podcasting would be a bazillion times better because there are several orders of magnitude more selection and because the user is in total control.

Apple should strive to replace talk radio, including satellite radio, with podcasting.

And Apple should strive to become the Internet’s biggest facilitator of whatever it is that will replace television, and ultimately use its market power to bring TV shows into its podcasting network.

From a business perspective, Apple should realize that all kinds of companies are making all kinds of money on recurring audio and video content. Properties like Funny or Die are pioneering a new TV-less form of serialized comedy. They’ve got an app, so they’d dying to be on the Apple platform. Yet where’s the “Between Two Ferns” podcast?

Why should users have to stumble across new episodes by hearing chatter on Facebook, then go do a search on YouTube to find it? Zach Galifianakis fans should be able to simply subscribe to the “Ferns” podcast and have new episodes download automatically.

By offering the content creators a clear, simple, flexible and profitable way to monetize, Apple could essentially create a new business that’s forward-looking (rather than its backward-looking approach to simply selling TV shows and seasons, for example).

In Apple’s view of the world, a TV show shouldn’t be a TV show. It’s should be a podcast.

And a podcast shouldn’t be considered a file that’s like a song, but un-monetizable. It should be considered a form of content equal to a radio or TV show.

Apple should destroy the culturally constructed and needless boundaries between podcasts, radio shows, TV shows, university lectures, vlogs and all the rest.

The only meaningful distinction is whether it’s audio only, or both audio and video. Any streamable, downloadable, subscribable content is either listened to or watched.

All those other distinctions are simply accidents of media history and now obsolete.

I think Apple is making a huge error by neglecting podcasting.

Rather than sweeping the medium under the rug and buying into the Hollywood fiction that old-school media is superior,

Apple should instead set up a brilliant, flexible model for all content creators to showcase their work, and enable users to live-stream, download, pay for, subscribe to and enjoy any kind of audio or video content regardless of who produced it — from the smallest, one-man podcast to the biggest-budget Hollywood TV series.

And call it podcasting. Because that’s what it is. All of it.


(Picture courtesy of This Week in Tech.)



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